If there is a guiding principle to Lukas Moodysson’s treatment of youth in his films, it’s encapsulated in a couple of sentences by Graham Greene: “At least I have never made the mistake of laughing at children’s love,” explains the narrator of The Innocent. “It has a terrible inevitability of separation because there can be no satisfaction.”
Like Graham Greene, Lukas Moodysson appreciates the melancholy of childhood. His bittersweet portrayals of children’s love (and frustrations, anxieties, passions, etc.) are sensitive, resonant and funny; if he ever provokes the viewer to laugh at kids, such as the hilariously misguided preteens “playing Pinochet” in his 2000 film Together, it is only to nudge the viewer into nostalgia for her own lost innocence. But even when his touch is light, the Swedish filmmaker is masterful at capturing youth’s contracted perception of time and amplified emotions: Every slight could mean the end of the world, and every joy feels limitless.
Moodysson’s films about kids have explored first love (Show Me Love), communal living (Together) and, in the harrowing Lilya 4 Ever, how teenage girls are seduced into Western Europe’s sex trade. More recently, Mammoth offered a cause-and-effect take on globalization, and Container vacillated between anti-capitalist polemic and surrealist hallucination; both films, which received middling reviews, focused mostly on adults.
So his recent feature We Are the Best! feels like a return to the territory where Moodysson seems most sure-footed and inimitable as a filmmaker. Adapted from a graphic novel by his wife, Coco, the film tells the story of a trio of girls who form a punk band amid the late-disco and burgeoning new wave drudgery of 1982 Stockholm.
Bobo and Klara are best friends, outcasts at school in short hair and scowls amid a throng of sunny blonde girls who look fresh from auditioning for a shampoo commercial. Out of petulance and boredom as much as ambition, the two girls form a band whose rehearsals consist of haplessly thumping away at borrowed drums and bass in the local community centre’s music room.
After seeing her virtuosic performance on classical guitar at the school talent show, Klara and Bobo recruit Hedvig, a god-fearing Christian, whose first official functions as bandmate are to shear her golden tresses (Klara claims that she and Bobo must “influence her away from God, get her to think more freely and differently – like us”) and to teach the two original members how to actually play their instruments.
A loose plot follows, but the film is most enjoyable for the chance to simply watch the three girls together on screen. The grown-ups in the film are largely ineffectual, if well-meaning: Two clueless youth counsellors, Hedvig’s virtuous mother and an exasperated phys-ed teacher all represent authority figures against whom the girls can rebel. But that rebellion, of course, is a relatively quiet one; the band’s anthem, Hate the Sport, isn’t exactly Anarchy in the U.K. The genuine sweetness between Bobo, Klara and Hedvig feels neither disingenuous nor saccharine, and when Bobo confesses that she has “cheated” with Klara’s boyfriend, the rift between them is palpable even though the “adulterers” only listened to records together and briefly hugged.
While we have grown accustomed, even habituated, to movies that explore the wayward morals of youth, it’s refreshing to watch a film not preoccupied with young women’s sexuality. Sex in cinema is rarely intimate, anyway; more often it alienates the viewer simply by being acted, filmed and projected with the intention of being watched. Blue is the Warmest Colour, for example, attempted a sort of psycho-sexual take on late adolescence, but the scenes on which the film hinged felt staged and a little too aware of their audience.
Bobo, Klara and Hedvig are engaging because they don’t seem to be performing for an audience at all. Beyond the remarkable naturalism of the three young actors’ performances, when the band finally lands a concert, they girls are delighted by the increasingly hostile crowd. It’s punk rock not to give a crap, of course, but the film also suggests that success exists not in the approval of witnesses, but in accomplishing something for oneself. And on the ride home, when the girls chant the film’s titular mantra, not only do we feel like it’s true, we feel we’ve earned the right to chant along.